What the government should learn from Coventry for its schools white paper

Kindy Sandhu
© lonndubh/Shutterstock.com

With the world in the midst of an international crisis and the UK facing a cost of living crisis at home, it came as no surprise that Boris Johnson chose to award Gavin Williamson with a knighthood this week. It is a reward for failure if I’ve ever seen one, and an insult to every child, parent, teacher, support worker and school staffer who persevered through the pandemic despite Williamson’s failures as Education Secretary.

But many of us in local government are not distracted from our mission to improve the life chances of all children and build a country where every young person can realise their full potential. The next focus is on the imminent schools white paper. Whether it’s published this month, or whether internal battles between the Department for Education, Treasury and Number 10 lead to tension and delay, we stand ready to scrutinise this landmark strategy.

Boris Johnson is on sticky ground, with remarkably low approval ratings (Ipsos MORI polling shows 70% of adults are dissatisfied with him). So we expect the Prime Minister to continue to throw red meat to recalcitrant MPs in the form of enforced academisation.

Against this political backdrop, schools bear the brunt of this government’s lack of respect for schools and educators. According to Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis, total spending per pupil in England was just over £6,500 in the latest complete year of data in 2019-20, a fall of 9% in real terms compared with its high point of £7,200 in 2009-10. It was a Labour government under Gordon Brown that raised state school funding by 20%, to £7,200 per pupil.

Let’s not forget that the Education Policy Institute has asked the government to put £13.5bn into our children’s education to reverse the harm and disruption that has been done to their education due to the pandemic. What does the government do? It responds with a measly £1.4bn – and that’s over three years. No wonder shadow schools minister Stephen Morgan has called out the government, overseeing a decline in education spending of 25% between 2011 and 2018, on its “indifference to education”. The facts are clear: as a share of GDP, education spending fell from 5.7% to 4.3% during those seven years.

On a recent visit to Coventry, Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson reiterated Labour’s commitment to young people to leave education ready for work and ready for life. In my role as cabinet member for education and skills at Coventry City Council, I speak with education professionals and visit schools frequently. Whether it’s planning how to support families and pupils on the ever-increasing cost of the school day, supporting children to plant trees, or a speech at full council on the lack of funding for schools, I am hearing and seeing the same messages: the dedication and commitment to their pupils and their profession despite the government’s disrespect.

Based on Coventry City Council’s partnership learning and experience, evidenced best practice, we offer up the following four proposals for inclusion in the school white paper.

1. Create an education partnership.

The Coventry Education Partnership unites all schools irrespective of their status, in one common purpose – to achieve the best outcomes for children and young people across our city. Our diverse community of schools includes academies, maintained and free schools, and further education (FE) partners. Together we share the strong moral purpose of ensuring that children sit at the heart of all we do. Coventry LA continues to maintain 62 (51%) of the primary and special school estate. So, it’s fair to say that the picture is complex.

However, despite that diversity, the partnership established to work together to focus on breaking down the barriers to learning our children face, continues to flourish. The partnership is an enabler where schools support each other, exchange good practice, and offer up solutions and ways to mitigate potential concerns. The collaborative approach and ethos includes a shared focus on school improvement, delivered through a school-to-school support system.

2. Use local intelligence.

The systematic gathering, interpreting, and sharing of local intelligence puts Coventry Education Partnership in a unique position to work through any strategic issue or challenge and secure a solution that serves the interests of all children in Coventry. This was starkly demonstrated throughout the pandemic. Coventry City Council developed the Outbreak Management Plan and the risk assessment that underlies it, supported by strong and continuous communications between system leaders. All schools adopted a common approach which secured a consistent, coordinated approach in managing the pandemic across schools in very challenging circumstances. 

It is a fact that the government’s – and indeed the DfE’s – success in managing the pandemic in schools has been in large part due to its reliance on local authorities to collate, analyse and submit the data and local intelligence gained through its support of schools. In Coventry, this work has been seamless making our contribution instrumental in supporting the government’s ability to manage the pandemic in schools. 

3. Build pathways to success.

In Coventry, we pride ourselves on the extent to which every child progresses within school. Given the situation many families in the UK face, with health inequalities, poverty and the rising cost of living, it is vital that any white paper includes provision for enabling children and young people to progress in a way that meets their needs, their ambitions and centres their voices in their pathways to success. Success cannot be defined solely in academic qualifications. The strength of any education system should be measured from where a child started when they entered the school system to where they finish when they leave school, and the ongoing support the government provides throughout their working life to ensure positive pathways to adulthood. 

Pathways to a successful working life should not therefore hinge on academic qualifications alone. Coventry can evidence the value that the schools and sixth forms add and the strong progression pathways for children and young people who enter the education system at a disadvantage, and have developed multiple destination pathways in partnership with FE, HE, businesses and local agencies spearheaded through our FE, Higher Education Institutions and Job Shop, to secure education, training, and employment routes. This model could be replicated across local authorities and schools.

4. Ensure a holistic approach and recognise that one size does not fit all.

Children attending school do not live in a vacuum. Too many experience traumatic life experiences, including domestic violence in the home; go to school on an empty stomach; experience mental health issues; and may not have benefited from a stimulating early start that enables them to be school-ready. This all affects their starting point in school. Coventry understands this. To secure the right support for children and young people in achieving progress in their educational outcomes, engagement with other services is vital. That engagement needs to be intrinsic, such that all professionals have the capacity, respect and resources to do their day job, but also know that they are part of a system that supports them to implement on a daily basis, a whole child approach. 

In Coventry, we call this the ‘One Coventry Approach’, where our aim is to remove silos and focus on better life chances for our residents and their families. Any white paper that delivers on a whole system approach will be rewarded in benefits to children and their families for years to come.

These proposals stem from the good practice that we have developed in Coventry. At times, it has not been easy. There have been challenges on the way and indeed we have stumbled on some occasions. Our final destination has always been and will always be meeting the needs of our children in our city and for that, we get up, dust ourselves down and carry on. We now offer the opportunity for the government to learn from us and produce a schools white paper that enables other local authorities to benefit from our successes.

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